The other night, while I was sleeping, two Australian men were executed in Indonesia.
I have been reflecting on why these two lives mean so much to us, and what meaning I draw from the story of their "redemption", if you like. In the case of these two men, we hear an inspiring story of transformation, confirming my deeply held believe that there is something good, or "of God" in everyone, that we are all capable of transformation, and are all connected by our common humanity. These beliefs lead me to oppose the death penalty, just as they lead me to be a pacifist. How can I consider killing another person if there is good in them, and we are connected somehow?
Quakers, and many others, have worked with prisoners for centuries. They have done so because of this belief in the good in others, that each person's life is "worth" something, and none of us is the sum of our worst action. Elizabeth Fry, who visited women in prison and campaigned for improved conditions, their education and rehabilitation, was recognised eventually on the 5 pound note for the positive impact her work had on the lives of many female inmates. The Alternatives to Violence Project was begun in prisons when older inmates wanted to provide an opportunity for change in the life experience of younger inmates. The project succeeded in turning around the lives of many people, who attribute their transformations to the experience of being affirmed and supported during their darkest time.
The story of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran has certainly captured the hearts and minds of many Australians. Their "rehabilitation" was quoted as a reason to show mercy, to make an exception. Many Australians would like to see Indonesia cease using the death penalty. Indeed, most of us would like to see an end to the death penalty throughout the world. It's an area we feel Australia is ahead, and has led by example. Yet our Government is not a shining example of human rights or compassion right now. We have been regularly told by UN reporters that our treatment of asylum seekers and our First Peoples leave much to be desired. Can we really plead with another country to make an exception or change its policy, in the name of compassion, when we don't do the same ourselves?
For me, I am aware that none of us knows when we will die, and so the best thing is to live fully and meaningfully every day. I think Andrew and Nyuran did that, and were an amazing example to other inmates. In some ways, I can reconcile their deaths because they made something meaningful out of their lives and were an inspiration to others. I am reminded of the Leunig poem that I read at my friend David's funeral seven years ago:
"But once again Vasco, it is not the length of life which is important, it is the shape and spaciousness – for therein lies the potential for a beautiful freedom. It is the roundness of life which matters. A round life is surely a happy life – and dare I say – it is a good life." - Michael Leunig.
How can the rest of us learn from this? How can we make our lives more spacious, round, good? When our time comes, will we be able to face death with calm, knowing that we have made a difference in other people's lives, transformed ourselves, and learnt from our mistakes, even if our death seems unjust, untimely or simply unwanted? And how can we as a country demonstrate greater compassion for strangers on our shores? How can we show, by example rather than through retaliation and vindictiveness, what a compassionate, progressive society looks like, that other countries might be led to follow suit and eventually do away with the death penalty.